01/06/2014 01:45 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

The Sad But True Lesson of Fallujah

To paraphrase the old saying about New York, if you can't make it in Fallujah, you can't make it in Iraq.

That's why the news that al Qaeda-linked Sunni militants have apparently gained control of Fallujah and Iraq's western Anbar province caused me to dig out the story I wrote for The Hill after going to Fallujah nine years ago.

Headlined, "Battered Fallujah key to Iraq," the April 2005 article was written after I accompanied James Jeffrey, deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Baghdad, as he conferred with the commander of 23,000 Marines in Anbar province, and some two dozen local government officials, Arab sheiks and Sunni clerics.

(Ironically, the same issue of The Hill reported that the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, then-Sen. Rick Santorum, had assured his colleagues that Majority Leader Bill Frist was committed to invoking the so-called "nuclear option" by stripping Democrats of the power to filibuster judicial nominees, the same controversial action taken last month by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.)

Sadly, the 2005 headline reflected a reality as true today as it was then. As Lt. Gen. John Satler, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, portrayed Fallujah as a crucial test of the U.S.-led multinational coalition's ability to provide security, restore political stability and rebuild Iraq's war-torn urban centers.

"This is the future of Iraq," Gen. Satler told Jeffrey and the local leaders. "If you can make Fallujah work, it becomes a status symbol and the whole Arab world will be looking at what we have done for Fallujah."

But today, after some 1,300 U.S. servicemen of the almost 4,500 Americans killed in the Iraq war died fighting al Queda-backed militants in Fallujah and Anbar province, and after the George W. Bush and Obama administrations spent tens of billions of dollars backing the Shiite-led Iraqi government before all U.S. forces were withdrawn in 2011, it's clear that the Iraq intervention was doomed from the start.

Jeffrey, who was running the U.S. Embassy until the arrival of the new ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, said coalition forces had made "tremendous progress" toward defeating al Queda elements in most areas of Iraq, although the political situation, with the Sunni minority feeling oppressed by the Shiite majority, was "still very worrisome. We're a bit frustrated, but that's democracy' he said.

On the economic front, Jeffrey told the local leaders that $100 million had already been spent on Fallujah, with another $100 million in the pipeline. "This is a very, very, very difficult thing we're undertaking, but we're winning and we need to continue pouring resources into Fallujah," he declared.

I stayed in Fallujah for several days, and traveled all over the city with Marines, and I heard Gen. Satler repeat his message while hosting Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region.

Afterwards, Gen. Satler told me, "You haven't visited Iraq if you haven't visited Fallujah."

Well, I visited Fallujah, and when I saw the latest headlines about al-Queda-backed Sunni insurgents taking over the city, I have to agree, Gen. Satler was right. If you can't make it in Fallujah, you can't make it in Iraq, or probably anywhere else in the Middle East, including Syria and Egypt.